My decidedly mixed feelings on the subject of spell checking software is well-documented, both here in this blog and in the No-Nonsense Proofreading Course itself.
In a nutshell, I think spell checkers are at once an essential part of any proofreader’s toolbox and a positive liability. Like I said, mixed feelings.
Let’s deal with the positive liability aspect first. It’s not the proofreading software itself that is the problem; it’s the user’s perspective. When the user thinks spell checking software can actually spot spelling errors, they’re in trouble. The fact is spell checkers don’t know how to spell. It’s true. Spell checkers only know that a particular word doesn’t exist in their vocabulary. This leaves you open to words that are in the proofreading software’s vocabulary but are being used in entirely in the wrong context. For example, all spell checkers would fail to highlight the following piece of gibberish:
The cloud pimpled the hug gauntlet.
Only the human brain can identify this perfectly grammatical and accurately spelled sentence as utter nonsense.
So, it’s crucial to recognise the limitations of proofreading software before using it.
But once you’ve informed yourself of those limitations, your spell checker becomes incredibly powerful as a labour-saving device. And if you’re looking to make your living from proofreading, then the more proofs you can red-pen your way through per day, the more money you can make.
An effective spell checker can reduce your workload by a considerable amount, sweeping away all those literal errors and obvious grammatical gaffes and enabling you to focus your efforts on the really tricky stuff.
If you use the more advanced types of proofreading software, for example Whitesmoke, you can get through even more work. Whitesmoke not only has a comprehensive, multilingual dictionary, it also employs a complex grammatical algorithm which can highlight grammatical errors that most spell checkers will miss. What’s more, it actively improves your grammar by telling you precisely why a particular piece of phrasing is grammatically unacceptable.
You can take a look at Whitesmoke here. They have some pretty cool free stuff, too, so feel free to skip their sales pitch and make the most of the freebies!
Spell checkers and proofreading software will never replace the keen eye and knowledge of the proofreader but they can provide much needed assistance if you’re fortunate enough to have a hefty workload.
“...we’ve got a spell checker! Get with the times! Your skills have been supplanted by computer technology! Welcome to the Space Age!”
Okay, I’m exaggerating a little, but that’s what I get for watching The Treasure of the Sierra Madre one too many times.
That said, you may find, as a proofreader seeking out work opportunities you often encounter what I call ‘the spell checker defence’:
“What do we need a proofreader for? Microsoft Word checks our spelling and grammar.”
If you’ve read The No-Nonsense Proofreading Course, you’ll know that I’m not entirely opposed to spell checkers (and if you haven’t read The No-Nonsense Proofreading Course... what’s keeping you?). Spell checkers have their place in the proofreader’s toolbox. In the hands of someone other than a proofreader, however, they’re a positive liability.
Now for a statement that might for some seem a little counterintuitive (or just plain wrong):
Spell checkers can’t detect spelling mistakes.
It’s true. They can’t.
What a supposed ‘spell checker’ actually does is highlight words that do not feature in its database. That’s a very different thing. If the word features in its database, Mr Spell Checker just nods and moves on, irrespective of whether or not it’s the right word.
To illustrate just how problematic this can be, let’s take a look at some memorable opening lines.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wipe.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
It was a pleasure to burp.
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
The following, from the opening of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, could have provided a particularly illuminating example, but in the interest of good taste, I’ll leave it to you to decide just how horribly wrong things can go if left to the devices of our mindless Mr Spell Checker.
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.
Not very pleasant, I know.
20 years ago, when I was copywriter and, by default, proofreader at McGee, Parsons and Associates, I was prevented from proofreading a skiwear catalogue by a client who wished to save money. He declared that he had a perfectly good grasp of the English language and could proofread it for himself. Unfortunately, he didn’t proofread it; he handed it over in its vulnerable entirety to his good friend Mr Spell Checker.
In the finished, printed and handsomely bound catalogue a reference to ‘luxurious casual wear’ appeared as ‘luxurious casual sex’.
Oops. To say the least.
After that, as you can imagine, the client in question always considered the modest outlay for the services of an effective proofreader as money very well spent.
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My name's Mike Sellars and I'm an experienced proofreader and the author of The No-Nonsense Proofreading Course. Click here to find out more about me.
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